by Alfred G. Aronowitz
Peggy Lee smoked her first cigarette when she was 14. She was singing for 50 cents a night with Doc Haines and His Orchestra, a band of students working their way through college one-nighters in North Dakota. It was 1934 and she thought she was terribly sophisticated. To Doc Haines and his buddies, she was just a cute little girl with precocious vocal cords and they treated her like a baby sister.
One night a member of the band told her that if she smoked a cigarette before she went onstage she wouldn’t be nervous. It wasn’t Doc Haines because he was an athlete and didn’t smoke. Peggy liked the idea of not only being allowed to do such a grown-up thing but of being encouraged to do it. She still remembers her first puff, although she wasn’t too clear about what it did for her stage fright. “I was so busy coughing,” she says, “that I guess I forgot to be nervous.”
That’s the way it is with compulsive smokers. Like junkies, they always remember the first time. Is there any addiction worse than cigarettes? To a smoker, it’s easier to cold turkey heroin than his favorite brand. Not that Peggy Lee ever had a really heavy habit. She never did more than two packs a day, although she talks about the times she looked at all the Raleigh coupons she collected and shuddered at the thought of what she must have collected in her lungs.
“Actually,” she says, “I used to light more cigarettes than I smoked. You know, when you write, it’s a habit. You light one up, lay it down in the ashtray and it burns itself out while you type.” You didn’t know Peggy was a writer, did you? For years she’s been working on songs, on scripts, on stories. She’s a member of the Writers’ Guild of America, and in the bedroom where I am talking to her, an electric portable is on the desk with a half-typed sheet of paper in the roller.
We are in her suite on the 36th floor of the Waldorf Towers, amid the palace décor that is homey enough for presidents, kings and prime ministers when they come to New York. Herbert Hoover used to live in the Waldorf Towers. Is there a railroad baron or an oil millionaire who hasn’t stayed here? These are the kind of people you find in Peggy Lee’s show now. I mean, that isn’t a Riker’s downstairs in the Empire Room, you know.
She has just finished up her second show of the evening in the Empire Room and has changed into flouncy black caftan. She likes large, flouncy things. Onstage, she had worn a large, flouncy, chiffon gown all in white and with ruffles. I tell her about the Indians who had been sitting at the table in front of me, with one of them acting like his bank account came from a gusher he found underneath his teepee. He wore a business suit and his wife wore a gown, but they were there with another Indian couple who came dressed right from the souvenir stand outside the reservation. I mean, the only thing that was missing was the feathers in their headbands.
The headwaiter said one of them was a friend of Marlon Brando, but I couldn’t tell whether it was the brave in beads or Chief Business Suit. They were both lushed enough to get the Waldorf busted for selling firewater to Redskins, and while the brave in beads kept nodding out, Chief Business Suit would stand up, walk around, cup his hands to his mouth, and give out with war whoops for Peggy.
Oh, she’s a pro, all right, gliding out in her fancy white gown, twirling her ruffles to the fanfare of the 21-piece orchestra behind her, the beauty of the years gone by still painted on her face. She was always up there with the best of them, in it as much for the music as for the cash, always a beat ahead of the times, but not too far ahead to be pegged as a nut. She was one of the pioneers among white girl jazz singers and not just satisfied to be grouped with the Doris Days. Commercial? You could tell that she would endure, maybe the only standard bearer of blond soul for anyone to dare mention in the same breath with Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Like Frank Sinatra, Peggy understood what Billie Holiday was all about. Isn’t “Fever” still a classic?
At the Empire Room, she sang James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” and a medley of her own hits, including “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “Is That All There Is?” and “Fever.” She recited poetry of Carl Sandburg and Lois Wyse and she asked for requests. “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful,” she told the crowd. She sang “Sing a Rainbow” and she sang “I Love Being Here with You.” She sang like a bitch. All in all, she was onstage an hour and ten minutes. She sang 17 songs and an encore, not bad for a lady of 52 who has to travel around with an oxygen tank.
In the bedroom of her suite afterwards, she is propped up on a pillow in her black caftan drinking a glass of Poland water. The oxygen tank is right next to the bed and she knows I want to talk to her about it. I ask her if it’s all right for me to smoke and she answers that the tank is shut off. I pull out a Winston and she starts puffing on a plastic cigarette that has menthol taste. “I had pneumonia again,” she explains. “They said in no uncertain terms, ‘You will not smoke again,’ and I understood it. It was a question of ‘Do you want to live or go?’ I want to live.”